Battlestar Galactica and the war in Iraq
Battlestar Galactica is back for its third season. The first episode premiered last night on the Sci Fi Channel. Yesterday afternoon I ran across the following while reading my favorite conservative blog, The Corner, one of the National Review's blogs, in which a contributor, Jonah Goldberg, posted from an email he had received from a reader (scroll down to the 2:20 post from Friday Oct. 6), who said:
Ever since the astounding conclusion of last season's BSG, I was pumped for this year's new episodes. However, I'm getting a very bad vibe about it being a multi-episode Iraq war bashfest. In particular, the webisodes - which, in all honesty, I've only seen the first five or six - draw complimentary parallels between the jihadi "insurgents" and the human resistance forces on New Caprica.In response, Mr. Goldberg merely commented, "I hear what this reader is saying, but they've earned my trust at the outset. So we'll see."
Plus, there's a story on Zap2it.com where Mary McDonnell, in discussing this season's plot arc, commends the BSG brain trust for their "brave and beautiful act" in putting together this year's series.
A "brave & beautiful act," I believe, is vapid actorspeak for "speaking truth to power." To quote Krusty the Clown, "Oooooo, this is always death."
So I'm afraid for this one. Any words of encouragement?
I rolled my eyes when I read that -- I read The Corner to give my eyeballs exactly that kind of swiveling exercise. But I hadn't watched any of the webisodes, so I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was (spoiler alert) that at the end of last season Vice President Gaius Baltar had won the election for president of the Colonies, after the president, Laura Roslin, had been caught trying to fix the election (you root for her to fix it! -- one of the amazing things about the show). As Charlemagne pointed out here some time ago, the series actually makes you root for a military dictatorship:
I seem to root for the military and their control of the government. I think, this silly group of civilians can't possibly know how to save the human race from sexy horrible robots! But then I say, "Oh. I guess I came in against freedom of representation. Freedom of the press. Etc." Then I feel like an ass.Anyway, Baltar won the election and decided to move everyone from the colony ships down to this planet they had just discovered. The 40-odd thousand colonists have been on the run from Cylons -- the "sexy horrible robots" -- for a long time, but the people were growing weary, and here was a decent enough planet where they could lay down their burdens ("Lay Down Your Burdens" was the title of the Season Two finale).
And so down most of them went to the surface. Many months went by. The planet was fairly bleak. Nothing fancy here. They built tent shelters, formed a camp. A sparse existence on firm ground must be better than living on a spaceship that's constantly under attack. And it was peaceful. No sign of Cylons. The people thought they were out of the woods. Then suddenly the Cylons came back, found the folks defenseless, and forced a surrender from the sleazy, corrupt Baltar. The ships in orbit, with their skeleton crews, "jumped" away (the only way to ditch the Cylons when they show up) and left the people to endure brutal Cylon occupation. (They are coming back. We know this. It's fiction -- you can take it to the bank.)
What does this have to do with Iraq? Well ... now there's an insurgency against the occupation, complete with suicide bombings and the characters wrestling with the moral dilemmas of insurgent warfare. There is now a human Colonial Police Force, trained by the Cylons to maintain order. A suicide bomber blew up their graduation ceremony -- 33 dead. The parallel is too obvious to dwell on.
This is exactly what Mr. Goldberg's reader was worried about. And if I were conservative, the show would now be making me very uncomfortable. After all, in our national mythology we prefer our insurgencies to be staffed by evil extremists, our suicide bombers to be anonymous, dark-skinned, whacked-out, our occupiers to be white Republican men.
The purpose of war propaganda is to turn those Other people into its. The enemies are not really people anyway, are they? A neighbor is a person, a family member, a friend, and yes, so is a fictional character. Admiral Adama, former President Roslin, Starbuck -- these are people to me. They reside in a friendly place in my mind. I think about them, look forward to seeing them, root for them as I squirm on my couch. That's the power of fiction. It's every bit as powerful as propaganda (while it lasts -- propaganda is 24/7).
It's fairly subversive to do this, even under a fictional premise. That is why Mary McDonnell (Laura Roslin) praised the BSG creators for their "brave and beautiful act." And rightly so. They are doing the things that writers are supposed to do: Find something important about human nature, serve it up with style, expand the reader's (or viewer's) humanity, make you care about the characters. The old saw runs: Nonfiction uses the truth to tell lies, and fiction uses lies to tell the truth. Here's one truth: humanity is universal. Speaking truth to power "is always death," according to the Corner reader's Krustyite philosophy. But that's not it -- those in power already know the truth. They would just rather no one talk about it.